DUBAI (Reuters) – Al Qaeda”s wing in Iraq gave the U.S.-backed government another 72 hours to free women prisoners, threatening to kill 36 Iraqi soldiers it holds hostage if it does not comply, according to an Internet statement on Thursday.
"We, the al Qaeda Organization in Iraq, announce extending the deadline to kill the 36 soldiers from the infidel guards to the next 72 hours," the group led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi said in a statement posted on an Islamist Web site.
"Release the helpless Muslim women from the Interior Ministry prisons and other jails," it added.
It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the statement, which was signed off with a name that usually accompanies the group”s official announcements.
The Sunni Muslim group, which has often abducted and killed officials and soldiers, said a high-ranking officer was among the 36 troops it was holding.
The group said in an Internet posting on June 9 that it was holding the soldiers, and gave the Iraqi government 24 hours to release all women prisoners. It later extended the deadline by 72 hours and said it was interrogating the soldiers.
Iraqi police said on June 8 that 22 Iraqi soldiers from the mainly Shi”ite Muslim south had been kidnapped after leaving their base in the town of Qaim, a stronghold of the Sunni Muslim insurgency near the Syrian border in western Iraq.
Two days later, witnesses said the bodies of 16 people killed execution-style had been found dead in western Iraq, but it was not clear if the victims, who were in civilian clothes, were the soldiers.
Insurgents have stepped up attacks since a new U.S.-backed Iraqi government was formed in late April, killing scores of police, soldiers, officials and civilians and challenging a cabinet that has promised to deliver stability.